Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gardening in the Diaspora: Place and Identity in Olive Senior's Poetry

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gardening in the Diaspora: Place and Identity in Olive Senior's Poetry

Article excerpt

Senior's poetry collection, Gardening in the Tropics, asserts the need for identity distinctions and dynamic exchanges, deploying the garden, in its ambivalent history as a space of colonial exclusion and postcolonial hybridity, as a figure for these processes. Senior both embraces and problematizes the rhizomatic and creolizing theories of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Edouard Glissant.

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Gardening and cultivation are ambivalent acts within contemporary and postcolonial literatures. As a metaphor, gardening works both in relation to postcolonial theories of hybridity, diaspora and dissemi/nation, and in relation to colonial histories of conquest and the desire for pure origins. While, on the one hand, gardening can be a means to identity for migrant writers, on the other, it is profoundly imperialistic. Gardening can encourage hybridity and propagation and yet simultaneously it seeks to weed out indigenous populations perceived to be inappropriate. This ambivalence continues: while community and organic gardens function discursively as means to identity, industrialized crops have become one of the hottest issues worldwide for critics of globalization, who observe their negative effects on identity and local economies. In this ambivalence, the concept of the garden serves as a succinct metaphor for one of the major impasses within postcolonial identity politics: how can theory preserve a space for specific forms of identity while seeking to overcome the limitations of traditional identity categories through modelling processes of hybrid, cross-cultural exchange? Both Christopher Bongie and Peter Hallward explain that while postcolonial theory has sought to eliminate oppressive hierarchies of identity, concepts of nation, race, and ethnicity, rooted in colonial history continue to be essential in delineating and preserving difference (Bongie 11, Hallward xii). The garden, as I will use it in this essay, is a figure for regional affirmations of identity, as well as for fertile and often painful cross-cultural exchanges. As in any horticultural endeavour, the balance in transnational identity politics is between nurturing the growth of distinct forms and encouraging hybrid propagation. Olive Senior's 1994 poetry collection, Gardening in the Tropics, succinctly captures this double ambivalence. Senior writes on the ways in which gardening can become a form of relating to a new place or of establishing identity through understanding the place of origin, while also recalling historical displacement bound to the land (since her speakers are frequently revealed as descendants of plantation slaves). Similarly, the collection suggests the creative identity possibilities arising out of transplantation, as well as out of shifting locations and cultures, and points toward the losses associated with that process. In Gardening in the Tropics, the garden's ambivalence functions as a space to negotiate the complex exchanges between colonial, postcolonial, and global, and to describe the contradictory impulses within current theory toward identities grounded in regional and historical particularities and toward identities that are forever deferred by movements of transnational exchange. The rhizomatic garden is also used as a metaphor for identity politics in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Edouard Glissant, but the historical discourses and practices that underlie gardening in Olive Senior's poetry construct the metaphor as a far more ambivalent and conflicted process than even Deleuze acknowledges. Unlike these critics, Senior insists on the potentially tragic losses produced by negotiations of identity and place as well as the productive possibilities.

Gardening in the Tropics is one of Senior's first works to combine her family history of slavery in the Caribbean with her migration to Canada in the early 1990s. While insisting that she remains "a conscious Caribbean person" (Allen-Agostini), Senior has been embraced by Canadian cultural institutions and now divides her time between Canada and Jamaica. …

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